For Mashpee Tribe Members, Varied Opinions On Cape Wind, Politics, Culture
By: Brian Kehrl
For Vernon Lopez, Chief Silent Drum of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, news of the federal government’s approval this week of 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound was disappointing. “It has always been sacred to us out there, and I hate to see it disturbed,” Mr. Lopez said.
For former tribal council vice chairman David L. Pocknett Sr., his strong support for alternative energy projects is trumped only by his concern that his ancestors may be buried under the sea floor out on Horseshoe Shoals, less than six miles off Mashpee’s shoreline. “They need to do more core samples. They have to sample that whole area, just to make sure they are not disturbing anything. That would show me they have some kind of a conscience, and they are trying to do the right thing,” Mr. Pocknett said of the project developer, Cape Wind Associates.
For Paul E. Mills, a tribal elder, his feelings about the project come down to finances. “Personally, I am not opposed to the project,” he said. “My apprehension about it is purely economic. Given the fact that I am right now retired—not voluntarily, I just can’t find a job—my whole thing right now is whether it is going to affect the cost of electricity...If it can reduce the cost of electricity, then I’m all for it.”
In interviews this week after Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar announced the final federal approval for Cape Wind, tribe members offered widely varied, and often keenly nuanced, perspectives on the controversial wind energy project, perspectives that often seem similar to those held by the many Cape Codders not stridently aligned with one side of the debate or another.
There are political sensitivities, too. Some tribe members declined to speak at all about the issue, citing concern about not wanting to weigh in on an issue on which their tribal government has staked such a strong claim; others declined to comment on individual points of contention raised by the tribal council, like the tradition of sunrise ceremonies looking out over Nantucket Sound or the possibility of archaeological resources under the project area.
Some tribe members decried the use of public lands for private profit; others said the project represents a milestone in sustainability.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, along with its sister tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), have over the past year become key players in the opposition to Cape Wind. Tribal officials have cited concerns about the project’s impacts on traditional sunrise ceremonies held along the coast and on the potential for archaeological resources under Horseshoe Shoals, which thousands of years ago was dry land.
The federal government was required to consult with the two federally recognized tribes in its deliberations. Sec. Salazar visited Mashpee and Aquinnah this winter as part of a public relations-oriented, fact-finding mission related to his decision on the project.
Aquinnah tribal leaders have threatened to fight the project in court, but it is unclear whether the Mashpee tribe will join them in legal opposition. The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the main opposition group to Cape Wind, made reference to the “Wampanoag tribe” joining its planned legal challenge, without specifying which of the several Wampanoag tribes.
A request to interview tribal council Chairman Cedric Cromwell and George F. Green Jr., assistant director of the tribal council Natural Resources Department, was turned down.
Tribe members almost unanimously said they saw the decision coming.
Much of Sec. Salazar’s statement during a press conference on Wednesday afternoon to announce the decision seemed targeted at issues raised by the tribes.
Sec. Salazar said the permit would require “modifications,” like reducing the number of turbines from 170 to 130, reconfiguring the project area to push it farther from the shore, and requiring the turbines be painted off-white to blend into the seascape but still be visible to birds. With the changes, he argued that the turbines will not dominate the “viewshed” of the area.
The permit will further require increased computer analyses to predict where evidence of settlements may be found, and a “Chance Finds Clause,” under which the developer must halt construction in the case of any archaeological discovery, he said.
According to the project Record of Decision, core samples will be required under each of the turbine locations. The samples will be open for review by tribal and federal officials.
However, the main concessions by the developer, the smaller number of turbines and increased archaeological monitoring, had already been widely publicized in years past, according to archives of the Enterprise.
“After almost a decade of exhaustive study and analyses, I believe that this undertaking can be developed responsibly and with consideration to the historic and cultural resources in the project area,” Sec. Salazar said.
Both tribes may be slated to receive mitigation payments from Cape Wind, up to $200,000 per year over the projected 21-year life of the project, for a total of $4.2 million, split equally between the tribes, according to the project Record of Decision filed yesterday. The state has also committed $3.5 million to address impacts on historical and cultural resources around the sound, some of which could be directed to the tribes.
“If the Tribes are amenable to pursuing Project mitigation actions, the Department will work with the Tribes and the State of Massachusetts in furtherance of the preservation of the cultural and historic interests of the Tribes,” according to the record of decision.
A spokesman for the Mashpee tribal council declined to comment on whether the tribe has made a deal for mitigation payments.
The tribes have already turned down payments of $1 million each over 20 years, according to news reports.
For Mr. Pocknett, however, mitigation money does not supplant his concern about the possibility of burial grounds existing out under Horseshoe Shoals.
“My people’s burial grounds are not for sale,” he said. “Prove to me that I don’t have any ancestors resting there now. Once you prove that to me, I am good with it.”
“The whole thing is, at one time it was a dry surface. If you live there, would you come three or four miles inland and carry your dead with you to bury them? No, you wouldn’t do that,” he said. “So I believe that if we had encampments and villages there, why wouldn’t we bury our dead there, so we are right there to watch over our loved ones that have passed?”
He said detailed, dense core samples from the project area would provide that proof; the record of decision had not yet been released at the time of the interview, so Mr. Pocknett could not comment on whether he feels the testing required is sufficient.
He declined to comment on the tradition of sunrise ceremonies over Nantucket Sound.
For tribal elder Amelia G. Bingham, the decision was no surprise—another example of the federal government disregarding the concerns of Native Americans.
“Who gives a darn about what Indian culture is? Nobody. It doesn’t make a difference to any of them. As far as Americans are concerned, it is a joke. They come to our pow wows to be entertained, but that’s it,” she said.
She questioned why Sec. Salazar, a politician from Washington, DC, with roots in Colorado, should be making decisions on a project that will have such significant impacts on Cape Cod.
She said the project, including its location in federal waters, is driven by a thirst for corporate profits. “I think it is a case of those companies, those investors, not having to purchase land to put those turbines on. If they put it out there in the middle of the ocean, it is free. But this is the modern times, when profit is everything,” she said.
Ms. Bingham and Mr. Lopez both said Nantucket Sound and the coastline are key to the tribe’s history, culture, religious traditions, and whole way of life.
“There was no industry here, nothing,” Mr. Lopez said of his upbringing in the early 20th century and the generations before him in Mashpee. “We lived off the land, literally. We hunted and fished. That was our survival. That is why it is so important to us. It is not just for religious purposes,” he said.
He said the wind farm is one more piece of development of that land and seascape that seems to be ruining the nature. “You can only take so much from the land, and somewhere along the way you have to give something back. Without the land you are nothing. There isn’t a thing in our lives that doesn’t come from the Earth,” he said.
Both elders said they have taken part in sunrise ceremonies down at the water, something Mr. Lopez said goes back to their ancestors being out fishing and shellfishing before the sun was up.
Tribe member Paula D. Peters said she, too, is troubled by the development of the sound, a place she has looked out over for ceremonies many times in the past. “And I will continue to do so,” she said.
But Ms. Peters said she is torn by the approval of Cape Wind.
“The decision overall, it saddens me because I think that the destruction of such a magnificent landmark is very sad. But I am conflicted about our responsibility to the Earth and our responsibility to renewable energy. I wish I could be convinced that this renewable energy effort was going to reap all of the benefits that have been promised, because there is so much that is being sacrificed,” she said.
Ms. Peters declined to comment on the impacts the project might have on archaeological resources.
“The bottom line is the Earth, whether here on Cape Cod or in the Middle East where we are drilling for oil, it is our responsibility. We need to respect and honor it wherever we are,” she said. “You try to live sustainably, it is part of our indigenous philosophy...If I am objecting to this project, I am objecting to sustainable energy that can help us protect the Earth in other places.”
Mr. Mills said that while the rising sun plays a particularly important role in Wampanoag tradition and culture, he has never been down to the shore of Nantucket Sound to take part in a sunrise ceremony. “I have not done that. I am not aware of any of it. And my father never said anything about it. He would have been 91 right now had he lived. And he told me lots of things from his childhood and his father before him,” Mr. Mills said.
And while Horseshoe Shoals was dry land at a time when ancient Wampanoags lived in the area, he said he is not aware of any tradition that indicates there is anything of significance under that area.
“It is a situation of the greater good. If it were to improve our situation, as far as our energy bills and security and so forth, I would be in favor of it. If it is all negative, then no,” he said.
He said he does not feel like he has gotten enough reliable information to make a conclusion about the project.
“I hope that if it really does go forward, it causes the least harm possible and we get the most benefit possible,” Mr. Mills said.
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